What happens if I die without a will? Estate planning explained by an attorney.

Over 2023 I spent some time working on my will and estate planning with Darlene Campbell, attorney for Spencer Law. It was such an informative process that I thought I’d interview her to share what I’ve learned. Darlene specializes in estate planning. She has helped me think through my estate planning and create a last will and testament. Our conversation is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.

Ingrid: So Darlene, what happens when you die without a will?

Darlene: If there’s no spouse, the basic rule is that everything goes Down, Up, or Over: down to your kids, up to your parents, or over to your siblings.

Ingrid: What is the process? Who gets involved when there is no will, and how long does it take?

Darlene: It generally takes six to eighteen months even with a will. A personal representative is selected, usually a family member. The personal representative gathers your assets, uses them to pay off your debts, and then distributes whatever remains to your heirs. All of this is done with the court looking over your Personal Representative’s shoulder.

Ingrid: How often should someone update their will?

Darlene: I recently spoke to someone who hasn’t updated his will since his kids were in college in 2000. Now he has grandkids. It’s a good idea to update a will when someone new enters the picture. Or when someone exits the picture. Relationships change! Another good time to update your will is when you gain a new asset, like a home.

Ingrid: What is the difference between a will and a trust?

Darlene: A will is a set of instructions that a judge makes sure are followed.  A trust is an agreement with a trustee who promises to follow your instructions. There is no judge involved. After you die, a trustee can immediately begin following your instructions.

Ingrid: Do you find that there are a lot of people out there without a will?

Darlene: Yes, there are. I encourage people not to focus on death when they think about estate planning. Instead, think about everything you’ve accomplished in your life so far and where you want to go with it. It’s a life-affirming process because you get to think about the joy of passing things on to people.

Want to set up a consultation with Darlene? You can reach her at

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